The author and his parents
The poems in Passage were written over the course of many years, but a good number of them date from the months after the death of the poet’s mother, whom he and his wife attended at home during the last months of her life. The first section of the book contains poems about the writer’s father, who died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1992.

Richard Wilbur calls McQuilkin’s poems “pungently exact about the properties of the real world”; and he adds that "The poems of Passage are painful, affectionate, true, and admirably realized. At 84 I glimpse myself in the son and father both." David Bottoms has written that “Rennie McQuilkin is a poet with an extraordinary eye... He looks at the hard questions of the world, never flinching, and translates them with a clarity that is rare in American poetry today.” Dick Allen agrees: “He has a voice unlike that of any other contemporary poet... McQuilkin speaks from us and with us in a language so devoid of all rhetoric it is pure American: the natural man is lifted out of himself almost beyond his knowing. My response is one of pure thanks.”

Rennie McQuilkin’s poetry has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, Poetry, and The American Scholar. He is the author of seven books, two of which have won awards—the Swallow’s Tale Poetry Prize for We All Fall Down and the Texas Review Chapbook Prize for An Astonishment and an Hissing. McQuilkin has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and for many years he directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which he co-founded at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT. In 2003 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book.

Read some sample poems from the book.


ISBN 0-9662783-5-6
Length: 56 pages
Binding: 5/5" x 8/5" trade paperback







He no longer cares
for himself. I undress him,
strip down,
lead him into this sort of

adjust the spray.
Marble legs, blue veined,
pale amethyst penis, too small,
brown coral on his back.

Clearly not my father,
something from the bottom
discovered by a boy
diving for drachmas.
I won’t have it.

I lather him, scrub his back,
then more gently
his buttocks, between his legs,
the calves, the shins.

With a grinding of bone
on bone, he lifts an arm,
begins his song. I understand
nothing, not a single word
I sing, repeating after him.


Every spring she began again
to do her hair, legs curled beneath her,
nude at the heart of the garden,
flush as terra cotta, too much the image

of my mother. Not for friends to see.
I was in favor of fall, leaves hiding parts
of her, and at last the removal—but not
the way my father held her, taking her

to the cellar, the pitch
black she wintered in—except for one
mica eye of the furnace
blazing, throwing light darkly on her.

What did I know? After he willed me
the sculpture, I carried it home
too carelessly, broke off a foot, a hand.

It’s time I reconsidered
how she nestled in his arms.


Knotty, brass-collared, its bone handle
grooved like wrinkled skin,
the eye of a heron at its crook, 

her father’s cane went everywhere
with her. When airport security
suspected a split in its hickory 

hid contraband, she shook it, joyfully
feigned senility,

The less she trusted her pins
the more she trusted the cane to keep her
from a walker or, God help her, wheels.

With it she strode the fairway
of her kitchen, hip-
swinging like her favorite linkster,

and when she took to bed for
good, she called for it,
would need its support on her journey—

“I have my father’s cane,
I have my father’s feet,
I’m almost there”—

kissed its ivory beak, got a grip on it below
the covers, and when she let go at last
would not let go of it.




This ritual: a clean-out
of the firebox, a plume of ash
rising like an empty speech balloon,

the twisting of yesterday’s news
to kindling, a laying on of
thin-split birch,

the opening of windows—a jolt
of weather without which the fire
will die. Then the match.

In the dark before dawn, I love
the crackling potbelly’s
gossip—shades of your good

morning news, my dear. If only
I could have let in air for you
when your breath began to fail

and snapped my fingers, like striking
a match, to make you leap up,
sure fire as the day’s first flame.

for my mother


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